Lesson 6: Autoregulation and Periodization for Resistance Training Progression

Table of Contents


Introduction

In Lesson 5 we discussed various parameters needed to construct a resistance training program. In Lesson 4 we discussed how progressive overload, where we continue to provide the body a challenging stimulus over time, is needed to make continued progress. One can simply lift more weight each session but this eventually yields diminishing returns. Additionally, there may be days when one feels weaker for whatever reason (ie, poor sleep, life stress, etc). This is where an autoregulated approach can prove helpful. Separately, in order to train multiple fitness attributes many people utilize a periodization scheme. Both of these strategies provide options for more variety on a daily, weekly, and monthly basis, and we will discuss these topics in this lesson.


Linear progression – good for a complete beginner

As a complete beginner, or as someone who is coming back from a long break, linear progression works well. The idea here is to add weight or reps to each set over successive sessions as neuromuscular adaptations occur to generate more strength.

Note: Many people refer to this initial phase of rapid strength gains as “noob gains”. Even a highly trained individual who embarks on a new training style (ie, a football player beginning to perform Romanian deadlifts for the first time) can undergo “noob gains” as motor patterns and neuromuscular adaptations are movement-specific.

This beginner phase is an excellent time to focus primarily on good form with various exercises. Bad habits developed in this phase are harder to break in the future. Initially, most beginners can lift more weight when their technique breaks down, but this does not mean they are getting stronger. If this occurs it is better to go back to the lighter weight and slowly build up so you can maintain good technique throughout a set.

Tip: Good technique can look very different in different individuals. This is due to variations in body structure (ie, height and limb length). Additionally, when lifting heavier weights the body’s movement through space may change to maintain a consistent center of gravity. Rather than think your form has to look exactly like someone else’s, it is better to understand the general principles for any given exercise and make sure your technique meets those principles.

Once you can perform exercises with good form, the primary way to judge if your form is breaking down is to see if it changes throughout a set. If you do a 10 rep set and reps 8-10 look different from reps 1-7, then you have experienced form breakdown. However, a common pitfall for beginners is that they are actually strong enough to do all 10 reps with good form but they lack the focus and technical mastery to maintain good form as fatigue sets in. This is where consistency comes in to play; if one stays consistent then after performing enough reps with good form it becomes second-nature and it is easier to maintain good form when fatigued.

So how can you know if your form is changing throughout a set? Take videos of your sets. This is incredibly useful; watch the video after your set and make indicated modifications.

Of note, I discuss appropriate exercise technique in Lessons 9-12.

So what will linear progression look like in practice? Let’s look at an example:

Example: Jason is a complete beginner starting to workout for the first time. He is doing a full body workout 3 times a week. Each session he is doing 4 exercises:

As squats and deadlifts somewhat overlap with the muscles they work, this yields ≥10 sets per week for the legs and 12 sets per week for the muscles primarily worked by the bench press & lat pulldown.

We’ve talked previously about RPE, RIR, and avoiding failure. Jason does want to avoid failure. However, as a complete beginner he is not concerned about RPE and RIR right now, he just wants to practice good form while the noob gains occur. Thus, he starts with 45 pounds (this is the weight of a typical empty barbell, though this can vary). Assuming he is able to complete 3×10 on squats with 45 pounds, the next workout he adds 5 pounds to each lift. He then repeats the 3×10 and keeps adding 5 pounds each session.

With this approach he gets lots of rep work with lighter weights initially; at first this is not challenging but it is useful as he is developing consistent technique. He is also developing the habit of getting to the gym and doing his workouts consistently. Eventually the weights will start to feel heavier; at this point he is learning to push himself when things become hard. He is videotaping 1 set each session to ensure his form remains good. When he can no longer complete 3×10 because the weight is too heavy, then he knows it is time to change the program in some way.

What if Jason cannot do 3×10 the first session, or what if this is pretty heavy and thus he isn’t getting to practice with lighter weights to develop good form? In that case it will be important to try to figure out why 45 pounds feels heavy. If it is a technique issue then he should take a video of himself to help identify and address the problem. If it is legitimately a strength issue then changing exercises can be helpful. Some example substitutions:

If 5 pounds feels light but then 10 or 15 pounds feels heavy, then instead of doing 3×10 each session one can start with 3×10, then move up to 3×15, then 3×20, all the way to say 3×30 with the 5 pound dumbbells prior to moving up to the 10 pound dumbbells.

The above example shows a viable method to use to start resistance training. Different exercises and progression schemes are also feasible. The important idea is to pick a handful of exercises, start light, work up slowly, focus on maintaining good technique, and develop consistency. I discuss example resistance training programs in more detail in Lessons 13 and 14.


How to account for delayed-onset muscular soreness (DOMS)

As we discussed in Lesson 4, DOMS generally peaks 24-48 hours after resistance training. However, if one really pushes it DOMS may peak 48-72 hours after resistance training. Thus, if somebody planned to do the beginner workout above on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, they may be sore for the Wednesday & Friday workouts. Thankfully, if one starts with very light weight (as advocated above) then soreness is unlikely to be significant. DOMS is typically most prevalent the first few weeks of training; starting light and building up slowly largely mitigates this.

That said, it is completely fine to train while mildly sore. When DOMS is more significant it may be better to take an additional rest day as significant soreness can alter one’s strength and technique. If at any point when warming up it seems the soreness will impede your lifting, options include adding a rest day, performing cardiovascular activity, or focusing on body parts that are not sore.

Note: It is important to realize that DOMS is NOT necessary for skeletal muscle hypertrophy or strength in general.(Damas, 2018) Soreness typically decreases after training for several weeks. Thus, there is actually no correlation between DOMS and overall results. This is one situation where “No pain, no gain” is completely inaccurate. Tons of great progress is possible with at most minimal soreness and no pain. If you move up in weights gradually and are not feeling sore this is not a sign that anything is wrong, and you should not consider altering your program due to this.


Autoregulated approaches

Once linear progression comes to an end it is generally helpful to employ an autoregulated approach. This was briefly described in Lesson 4; I will elaborate on the common methods here. The basic idea is to allow how the body feels on a given day to help guide performance.

Various autoregulated approaches have been employed since at least the 1940s, and there is still not a unanimous consensus about how to best utilize these.(Greig, 2020) Many different methods are available to determine one’s overall fatigue and readiness to perform. These include biochemical markers, psychometric surveys, readiness scales, jump height or grip strength, among others; we can use these various metrics to help determine starting loads for an exercise or even what to do in a specific training session.(Helms, 2020) However, these approaches are not commonly utilized (with a possible exception in the case of higher level athletes) and they are certainly not necessary.

More commonly, people use autoregulation within sessions to help determine specific loads and stopping points for sets. This allows real time feedback to guide individual workouts. The three primary means by which this is done typically include rating of perceived exertion (RPE), repetitions in reserve (RIR), and/or velocity-based training (VBT). VBT is not a viable option for most beginners but for completeness I discuss it briefly below.

Note: Authors of a recent systematic review (SR) comparing different autoregulation approaches did not find many well-designed studies.(Larsen, 2021) However, the evidence indicated RIR-based RPE (described below) is more effective than non-autoregulated percentage-based protocols. Additionally, they found group-based VBT (described below) may be even more effective than RIR-based RPE.

A separate recent systematic review and meta-analysis (SR/MA) comparing autoregulated approaches to non-autoregulated percentage-based protocols utilized with athletes found an overall benefit to autoregulated approaches as well.(Zhang, 2021)


Daily adjustable progressive resistive exercise (DAPRE)

This approach was initially developed in 1979 for rehabilitation settings.(Greig, 2020) One completes 4 sets per exercise; the goal of the 3rd set is to perform a 6 rep max (6RM, the most amount of weight that can be listed for 6 repetitions) to failure. If one completes <5 or >6 reps, the weight is lowered or raised, respectively, in the 4th set and the following session. An expanded version in 2000 included a 3RM, 6RM, and 10RM to focus on power, strength, and hypertrophy.(Greig, 2020) This is a fairly rigid protocol and requires training to failure on 2 successive sets. For these reasons this has fallen out of favor and is not typically utilized. However, there can be merit for those who lack the ability and experience to employ other autoregulated approaches effectively.(Zhang, 2021)

Note: A variation of this scheme can be used where one stops short of failure. Do as many reps as possible on a final set but stop 1-2 reps shy of failure. Then adjust the load in the next training session based on how many reps are completed. Alternatively, stop all sets short of failure until the final set and take this last set to failure. Then, based on how many reps you perform, adjust the weight for the next session. This is a viable strategy and is commonly utilized in various training programs.


Flexible nonlinear periodization (FNLP)

With this approach a person chooses their specific workout protocol for the day based on their perceived performance capability for that specific session.(Greig, 2020) This has been recently reviewed, and only a couple of studies were found which have evaluated this approach:(Larsen, 2021)

  • An initial study with methodological concerns showed some promise in untrained lifters.
  • A subsequent study allowing trained lifters to choose the order of hypertrophy, strength, and power sessions throughout a week did not show benefit compared to a set order of hypertrophy -> power -> strength.

Overall, there is not enough research to fully evaluate the merits of this approach.

Tip: FNLP may be an excellent tool for people who struggle with motivation and consistency. On days where you do not feel like following your workout program you can choose a different workout to still be productive. For example, if your heart isn’t into lifting one day you can consider doing a cardio and jumping workout. If you really don’t feel like doing squats for whatever reason you can substitute a different exercise such as step ups or lunges. If you feel completely worn down and need an extra day off then so be it, but if you feel you can actually do something productive then this approach allows you to make it happen. Any approach that allows greater consistency is likely worth considering.


Rating of perceived exertion (RPE)

RPE gauges the difficulty & exertion level of a set. However, if one bases RPE solely on exertion it may not correlate well with proximity to failure. For example, a high rep set of squats will frequently take more effort/exertion than a high rep set of dumbbell curls, even if both are taken to the same proximity to failure. However, if desired one can directly correlate RPE with proximity to failure (RIR-based RPE). This notion was initially published several years ago(Zourdos, 2016) and is widely used, at times with modifications. I have modified the initial version into the below table that makes slightly more sense to me conceptually:

Despite widespread use, there is ambiguity in the literature due to different potential definitions of RPE.(Halperin, 2020) Various terminology exists (ie, “effort” vs “exertion”, which are used identically or with distinct definitions based on the source). As discussed in Lesson 4 different definitions of failure are used as well, including:

  • attempting and failing to complete an additional rep
  • not attempting to complete an additional rep when one knows they are not able to complete it
  • completing a final rep with consistent form even if further reps could be completed with form breakdown

Additionally, when people take sets to failure they do not necessarily assign a RPE of 10. Some literature observes RPE values as low as 7 with failure sets.(Helms, 2020). Other literature notes people tend to assign higher RPE values to higher rep failure sets than lower rep failure sets.(Steele, 2017) This may indicate for many people RPE reflects discomfort (rather than exertion) as higher rep sets are typically more uncomfortable.

Note: Given these limitations, it is possible some people will benefit more from using RPE than others. If a person typically assigns higher RPE due to a set becoming uncomfortable (typical with higher rep compound sets) this may be a less viable approach. Nonetheless, many people use RPE to good effect, and the method of autoregulation with it is simple; instead of aiming to perform X amount of reps during a set, rather you aim to perform as many reps as possible until you reach a pre-assigned RPE value. Thus, on days you feel stronger you will perform more reps and on days you feel weaker you will perform fewer reps.

Example: Let’s say we are following a program where we want to take sets to a RPE of 8 in the 8-10 rep range. For illustrative purposes I will only include 1 set per session. The first 6 sessions may proceed as follows:

  • Session 1: 100 pounds x 8 reps to a RPE of 8. We are within our desired range so will keep the weight the same.
  • Session 2: 100 x 9 to a RPE of 8. We are still within our desired range so we will keep the weight the same.
  • Session 3: 100 x 9 to a RPE of 8. This is the same as last time. Thus, we will keep the weigh the same.
  • Session 4: 100 x 10 to a RPE of 8. We are at the top end of the range but still within it; we will keep the weight the same.
  • Session 5: 100 x 11 to a RPE of 8. We are beyond our desired rep range. We will increase the weight.
  • Session 6: 105 x 8 to a RPE of 8. Now we start this same progression scheme with a higher weight.

There is no need to panic after session 3 above when no progress is demonstrated; if we are beyond the linear progression phase we should expect some sessions where we do not add weight or reps to our sets.


Repetitions in reserve (RIR)

When you take a set to failure you are by definition taking the set to an RIR = 0. This is easy to define but in practice is potentially inaccurate if you underestimate your lifting ability. In theory you may think you are at failure when in reality you could complete another rep if you were to try. Thus, the utility of using RIR depends on your ability to accurately assign a RIR value to each set. I have included some studies evaluating this below:

  • When attempting to pick a weight with the goal of reaching failure at a specific number of reps, people of all experience levels underestimate the repetitions they can perform in a variety of different exercises.(Steele, 2017). Individuals with more experience are more accurate (within 1-2 reps vs ≥3 reps for beginners). Thus, it is difficult to know a priori how many reps one will achieve, particularly for beginners.
  • When estimating RIR during a set instead of prior to a set, one study evaluated the 10-20 rep range in the bench press and leg press.(Hackett, 2018) Subjects were accurate within 3 reps of their RIR prediction at the 10 rep mark. On most sets the accuracy averaged within 2 reps. The only set where the average accuracy was 3 reps was the first set of leg press in the first training session. In the subsequent session this improved to 2 reps. Males were generally more accurate than females. Interestingly, correlations between estimated RIR and actual RIR were between r = 0.59-0.87, while correlations between RPE and actual RIR were generally less than r = 0.5 and at times less than r = 0.2. This further shows RPE does not necessarily correlate well with RIR.
  • A subsequent study by the same research group as the last study found fairly similar results (accuracy within ~1 rep with the chest press and 2-3 reps with the leg press).(Hackett, 2019) The authors noted that the accuracy of RIR prediction did not correlate well with perceptual fatigue (r = -0.26 for the chest press and r = -0.18 for the leg press).
  • In a separate recent study subjects maxed out on the squat and then took 70% of their one rep max (1RM) to failure while attempting to estimate when they were at 5, 3, and 1 RIR.(Zourdos, 2021) Of note, they were not told the weight they were lifting. Therefore, any intuition regarding expected rep count from prior experience lifting that weight was unavailable. These were all male lifters with at least 2 years of experience performing squats. The sets ranged from 9-26 reps and individuals who were able to perform more reps were less accurate at 5 RIR and 3 RIR predictions. Regardless of total rep count accuracy was similar at the 1 RIR prediction. On average predictions were off by 5.15 reps at the 5 RIR prediction, 3.65 reps at the 3 RIR prediction, and 2.05 reps at the 1 RIR prediction.

Note: A key finding in the above study is the very wide discrepancy in the number of reps that could be performed with 70% of one’s 1RM. After all, a range of 9-26 is very large. This is one reason I do not favor non-autoregulated approaches that prescribe specific numbers of reps at a specific % of one’s 1RM; this approach can yield very different training effects between different people.

Having said that, a recent study indicates two factors that can contribute to this wide discrepancy.(Hernández-Belmonte, 2021) One factor is an individual’s baseline level of strength; stronger individuals relative to their body weight were able to perform more reps at a given % of their 1RM. A second factor is the daily variation that can occur with one’s performance. For example, suppose you know your 1RM from prior testing is 100 pounds. If your program suggests you lift 70% of this, that would be 70 pounds. However, suppose any given day your actual 1RM can fluctuate from 90-105 pounds. Then 70 pounds may be anywhere from 67%-78% of your 1RM for that day. This can lead to a wide disparity in the number of reps you perform.

When controlling for those two factors the largest range in squat reps obtained at 65% of one’s 1RM was 8 and the largest range at 75% of one’s 1RM was 5, much smaller than the 17 seen in the aforementioned study.

Tip: As seen above RIR is less accurate with higher rep sets and when staying further away from failure. In Lesson 5 we discussed when performing higher rep sets staying to a RIR closer to 0-2 may be more beneficial to achieve full benefits of the set. At an estimated RIR = 2 accuracy may be off by 2-3 reps, meaning one may be at an actual RIR = 5. If one continuously uses higher rep sets and stays at a real RIR = 5 these sets may not be very valuable. For this reason, it is worthwhile to take higher rep sets to failure if you can safely do this every now and then to better understand what a real RIR = 0, 1, and 2 feels like. One can then “anchor” subsequent RIR estimations based on this feeling and this should improve accuracy.

Example: Let’s say we are following a program where we want to take sets to a RIR = 2-3 in the 8-10 rep range. For illustrative purposes I will only include 1 set per session. The first 6 sessions may proceed as follows:

  • Session 1: 100 pounds x 8 reps to a RIR = 3. We are within our desired ranges so will maintain the same weight.
  • Session 2: 100 x 9 to a RIR = 2. We are still within our desired ranges so will maintain the same weight again.
  • Session 3: 100 x 9 to a RIR = 3. We are now stronger but still within our desired ranges so will maintain the same weight.
  • Session 4: 100 x 10 to a RIR =2. We are at the top of our rep range but not our RIR range so we will maintain the same weight.
  • Session 5: 100 x 10 to a RIR = 3. We are now at the top of both our rep and our RIR range so we will increase the weight.
  • Session 6: 105 x 8 to a RIR = 3. Now we start over this same progression scheme with a higher weight.

We don’t actually demonstrate increases in strength between sessions 1 & 2 as in both sessions we expect we could have performed 11 reps. This also applies to sessions 3 & 4 where we expect we could have performed 12 reps in each session. However, by going to a RIR = 2 instead of 3 the set may have been slightly more beneficial if we were underestimating our true RIR. Regardless, we do not expect strength to increase every session as we are beyond linear progression.


Velocity-based training (VBT)

VBT is a newer method of employing autoregulation with much of the research being published in the last few years. The basic idea is:

  • perform the concentric portion of each rep as fast as possible
  • monitor the speed of each rep in a set
  • stop a set once a repetition falls below a certain speed:
    • this can be an absolute speed (ie, 0.6 meters per second)
    • this can be a relative speed (ie, 20% slower than the first rep in the set)

One can generate a load-velocity profile (LVP) for a specific exercise. This LVP correlates repetition speed with a given percentage of one’s 1RM.(McBurnie, 2019) An individualized LVP is superior to a group-based LVP due to differences between lifters.(Balsalobre-Fernández, 2021) There are several different methods available to develop a program utilizing VBT.(Weakley, 2021a)

Unfortunately, employing VBT as is commonly prescribed requires specialized equipment. There are many options out there but the more accurate ones are more expensive.(Weakley, 2021b) However, there is research showing that it is possible for individuals with prior training to relatively accurately perceive changes in repetition speed throughout a set, at least with the bench press and squat.(Sindiani, 2020) The collective research indicates taking a set to a velocity loss of ~20% yields gains in strength, power, and hypertrophy; this corresponds to performing ~50% of one’s maximal reps in a set. Greater hypertrophy gains are seen by going to ~40% velocity loss; this corresponds to taking a set close to failure.

Perhaps as time goes on the accelerometers and linear position transducers utilized with VBT will become more affordable; if this occurs this will be a more viable method of autoregulation for lifters of all experience levels. At this point though this is not going to be a practical option for most people, and thus I will not discuss it in more detail.


Using autoregulation to guide progression

We have discussed there are multiple methods one can use to autoregulate their programming, ranging from how to pick what to do in a specific session to how hard to push themself in a specific set. The key here is that when the body is ready to showcase improvement (by allowing more weight or more reps to be performed with a similar level of effort or exertion), this will be evident. This is very different from linear progression described above where more weight or reps are done every workout regardless of how one feels. Once linear progression is exhausted, a well-designed autoregulated approach makes it obvious when we can add more weight or reps to an exercise.

Considering the methods listed above, both RPE and RIR are the most widely-used. RIR-based RPE makes them mostly equivalent, but keep in mind the studies above that indicate RPE and RIR do not always correlate well. They can also have separate nuances and potential drawbacks:

  • RPE: typically higher with higher rep sets and compound sets, may reflect effort vs exertion vs discomfort and is very subjective overall
  • RIR: theoretically objective but practically can be inaccurate, likely more accurate as one approaches failure

Thus, given their distinctions, if you use them equivalently RIR-based RPE you will lose any independent information you could obtain by tracking them distinctly. Nonetheless, many do this with good results. Regardless, as long as you understand how these two metrics interact and what influences them you can move forward with using either or both options in various scenarios.

Tip: Do not fall into the trap of trying to “force” progression when using an autoregulated approach. Remember, if you are beyond the linear progression stage you are not going to seem stronger every single workout. If at some point you don’t make any progress for several weeks in a row, and you are not yet an advanced lifter, consider the following problems:

  • lack of consistency
  • poor sleep
  • poor nutrition or inadequate calories
  • increased stress levels

If none of these are a significant factor then it is likely time to change the training program. The one caveat is if you are purposefully in a caloric deficit to lose weight; in this situation it may be more reasonable to set a goal of maintaining your current strength rather than gaining strength.


Periodization approaches

There is actually a lot of confusion in the literature regarding what constitutes periodization. Almost all would likely agree in a broad sense periodization is considered an approach where training variables are varied over time. A very recent review proposes the following universal definition:(Kataoka, 2021)

Periodization is an organizational approach to training that considers the competing stressors within an athlete's life and creates "periods" of time dedicated to specific outcomes (i.e., strength, hypertrophy or power). These designated periods are intended to manage the stress associated with exercise, while also creating potentiation in the subsequent training phases. Through proper stress management and program design this approach may also attempt to peak various performance measures at a specific time relevant to competition.

In this section I will go through the underlying theory of periodization, brief examples, an overview of the literature, and then a summary for clarity.


Underlying theory of periodization

There are several ideas behind the concept of periodization:

  • Avoid excess fatigue: By doing the same thing repeatedly too much fatigue may set in and we will experience diminishing returns. By planning out variation well, and including “deload” phases at strategic points (recall from lesson 4 a deload phase entails decreasing training volume and possibly intensity to allow one to recover more fully from built up fatigue), one can avoid accumulating too much fatigue which would otherwise hinder results.
  • Potentiate subsequent training: The variation should be planned out such that prior training develops fitness attributes that contribute to subsequent training. For example, starting a training block with significant cardiovascular work will increase one’s overall level of conditioning. In a subsequent training block we use this increased fitness to focus on developing sports-specific skills without becoming fatigued to the point where we need to cut sessions short.
  • In the world of sports where a year long training plan is designed around a series of competitions, another aspect of periodization is to design the training program to help peak for competition(s).

Note: There are two underlying conceptual models by which periodization can make sense. These are:

  • Supercompensation model: a theory that with intense training we “deplete” the body’s resources and then with adequate rest/recovery the body restores these resources to levels beyond the initial starting point. At this point we are more fit and have experienced a beneficial training effect.
    • This can indeed occur with glycogen; by following a low carbohydrate diet and doing extensive cardiovascular activity we can deplete our body’s glycogen stores and then if we consume high amounts of carbohydrates our body will synthesize more glycogen (temporarily) than was present initially.(Murray, 2018)
    • Besides glycogen there are no other bodily substances where supercompensation is known to occur in this format.(Buckner, 2020)
    • Hence, for many years now the theory of supercompensation has fallen out of favor. You may still see the term “supercompensate” used but this is just to reflect the process of improving over time, not the actual supercompensation model.
  • Fitness-fatigue model: this is the more common model still used today.(Greig, 2020) The idea is that as we train we induce fatigue but we also experience beneficial adaptations that increase our overall fitness. On any given day our overall performance is a summation of our fitness + fatigue.
    • After training extensively our fatigue may be high enough to mask our fitness and our performance may decrease.
    • At this point we deload for a certain period of time. When deloading both our fatigue and our fitness decrease in magnitude, but our fatigue decreases to a greater extent than our fitness.
    • Thus, our overall performance increases as we deload.
    • This is the theory behind tapering for a competition.

Note: The fitness-fatigue model ties in closely with the concepts of “overreaching” and “overtraining”.(Bell, 2020)

  • Functional overreaching is essentially the same idea as increasing fatigue through training, then deloading, and ending up with an increase in overall performance.
  • Non-functional overreaching occurs when the increased training stimulus is maintained too long; when deloading occurs a full or near-full recovery is observed but there is no overall improvement in performance.
  • Overtraining, or overtraining syndrome, occurs if one goes well beyond the point of nonfunctional overreaching. This can lead to decreases in performance for months as well as several negative health effects. Thankfully, this is incredibly rare from straightforward resistance and athletic training. If a person follows a reasonable exercise program and adjusts accordingly when signs of excess fatigue set in the odds of entering a state of true overtraining are very minimal.

Tip: If you have an upcoming vacation or short period of time where you know you will not exercise regularly, you can take advantage of the functional overreaching principle above. Assuming your normal training has not already caused you to accumulate a significant amount of fatigue, you can increase your training volume the week before a vacation. Then after the vacation when you are fully rested and recovered you may be even stronger than before the vacation started. Obviously there are several variables and factors here, but this is a viable strategy.


Brief examples of programming for periodization

Generally, when looking up studies of periodization with regards to resistance training several different approaches will emerge, including linear periodization (LP), reverse linear periodization (RLP), block periodization (BP), and undulating periodization (UP). UP is frequently described as daily undulating periodization (DUP) or weekly/biweekly undulating periodization (WUP). As discussed in Lesson 4, BP incorporates planning out different microcycles and mesocycles to train different attributes over the course of a macrocyle, with the goal being to maintain newly attained fitness attributes in subsequent training blocks. Thus, this approach makes more sense for athletes planning out a year of training but is not generally applied to individuals doing resistance training for the sole purpose of benefiting health/hypertrophy/strength (though it could be done for individuals who want to train multiple different fitness attributes throughout a year).

The table below (also shown in Lesson 4) gives a brief example illustrating the difference between LP, RLP, and DUP. Each cell has sets x reps (3×10-12 means 3 sets of 10-12 reps).

LP schemes decrease the rep range throughout a mesocycle prior to resetting. RLP schemes do the opposite. With UP the rep ranges change throughout the week(s) and then reset. A deload week can be included prior to resetting (in the example above this would be included after week 4, some would do the above 4 week training blocks twice and then include a deload week after week 8).

An example of block periodization may include the following four blocks in 4-week increments:

  1. Develop muscular endurance and general conditioning with higher repetition resistance training and shorter rest times.
  2. Focus on muscular hypertrophy and continue conditioning work once weekly.
  3. Emphasize muscular strength by working towards sets of 1-3 reps. Continue incorporating higher rep sets throughout the week and conditioning work at least once weekly.
  4. Prioritize speed and power. Continue to incorporate a few heavy sets (2-4 rep range) weekly to maintain maximal strength, incorporate higher rep volume work to maintain hypertrophy, and include conditioning work at least once weekly.

With this example general conditioning is initially developed and then de-emphasized but retained in subsequent training blocks. The same is then done with muscular hypertrophy and muscular strength in the following training blocks. After 16 weeks the cycle could be repeated, but instead of purely focusing on conditioning one could include aspects of the hypertrophy, strength, and power/speed blocks to help maintain those attributes.


Overview of recent literature regarding periodization

As there is controversy regarding periodization I want to briefly showcase some of the recent, relevant review articles.

  • A 2017 systematic review & meta-analysis (SR/MA) evaluated periodized vs non-periodized approaches for muscular strength.(Williams, 2017) This included 18 studies and found a small-to-moderate positive effect of periodization for strength gains, particularly when participants were untrained and when using a UP model.
  • A 2018 SR evaluated periodized vs non-periodized approaches for muscle hypertrophy.(Grgic, 2018) This included 12 studies of mostly untrained subjects and found no benefit of periodized approaches.
  • A 2018 review of periodization and its impact on strength and hypertrophy noted that there is little overall research suggesting a strong benefit of periodization.(Fisher, 2018)  It seems many studies are highly variable and too short in duration to yield any conclusions over longer time periods. Additionally many of the studies do not adequately evaluate the impact of variety in exercise selection, detraining periods, and supervision. The authors note much of non-periodized programming still has sufficient variation to lead to adaptations.
  • A 2019 review examined the literature evaluating periodization’s impact on strength and hypertrophy.(Evans, 2019) The author notes that meta-analyses generally have favored UP > LP for strength gains. However, some of the studies showing a benefit of periodization for strength used higher loads closer to the testing day; it is possible the better results are simply due to increased neuromuscular efficiency from lifting heavier weights and if non-periodized groups also lifted heavier weights there would not be a benefit to periodization. The author notes many of the studies evaluating hypertrophy have been too short to see significant differences. Additionally, studies comparing UP and LP protocols for hypertrophy primarily use strength-oriented programs with hypertrophy measured as a secondary outcome; the results of these studies are equivocal. Lastly, most of the studies to date have not incorporated deloading periods.
  • A 2019 SR of MAs regarding periodized vs non-periodized approaches included only 2 MAs and evaluated the 21 independent studies that comprised these MAs.(Alfonso, 2019) They found that none of the studies compared periodized approaches to non-periodized, varied approaches. Additionally, none of the studies utilized predictions concerning the timing of adaptations (meaning none were looking for a potentiation effect). Overall the authors conclude that the research still has a long way to go and it’s unclear if any benefits from periodization are simply due to the built in variation as opposed to the actual periodization structure.
  • A 2020 review of periodization includes many of the above findings, noting many of the studies of periodized vs non-periodized programs are <16 weeks duration, benefits for strength may come from the training specificity of the program rather than periodization itself, and the subset of studies that do show a benefit for hypertrophy often utilize indirect measures of lean body mass.(Buckner, 2020) The authors note that eliciting true overtraining in humans with resistance training is difficult and the idea that variation is necessary for continued adaptation as one becomes more trained lacks physiologic support. The authors actually advocate using a flexible nonlinear periodization approach to manage fatigue by simply decreasing the training component(s) that is/are contributing the most to fatigue if excess fatigue accumulates.
  • A 2021 review (by the same group as the last review mentioned above) notes that there have been >80 definitions of periodization proposed over the years, there is lots of confusion regarding the difference between “programming” and “periodization”, and the vast majority of studies are on too short of a time scale to actually evaluate periodization.(Kataoka, 2021) Additionally, the vast majority of studies do not consider other stress in an athlete’s life or peaking for a competition. Thus, almost all of the studies evaluate different methods of programming but do not actually evaluate periodization over a longer time scale.

Summary of periodization

In summary, periodization is a much talked about topic and is discussed frequently in the fitness and athletics world but there is very little research evaluating it adequately. Much of the discussion of “periodization” is actually a discussion of distinct conceptual points, such as:

  • training variation throughout a year
  • deloading or tapering for a competition
  • programming microcycles or mesocycles over a shorter time period

For individuals in sports who want to peak for separate competitions, or for individuals who want to focus on different training attributes at different time points, periodization seems like a viable strategy. For individuals simply training for general health, strength, hypertrophy, or conditioning, there is no strong evidence that periodization with distinct focuses on different attributes over a year-long time period will prove more beneficial than incorporating training for all attributes simultaneously.

When it comes to the specific programming aspects (ie, LP vs RLP vs UP), even though they have “periodization” in their name they actually are more accurately described as “programming”. Regardless, there is no strong evidence that any one of these approaches is greater than the others, and there is no strong evidence that any of these are greater than traditional resistance training programming that includes sufficient variability. At the same time, there is no evidence that these programming approaches or periodization in general is an inferior training strategy. There are many intermediate & advanced resistance training and overall athletic programs that utilize these strategies sensibly, and many people get great results with them.

Thus, periodization is an excellent option for individuals who want to incorporate a greater amount of variety in their training, but for the average individual looking to improve overall health and fitness it is by no means necessary.


Conclusion

When one first begins training it is very easy to make progress. In this initial phase it is logical to follow a simple linear progression scheme while developing good technique and building desirable habits. Eventually linear progression will come to an end and then adjustments need to be made. This generally entails autoregulation of some sort, and while there are multiple methods more recently these tend to incorporate RPE or RIR. Following a lifting routine set up with the parameters discussed in Lesson 5 while incorporating RPE or RIR to guide set termination will allow continued progress for a very long time. When individuals want to incorporate greater variety, train different fitness attributes at different time points, or prepare for a specific competition, incorporating periodization is a viable strategy.

Now we have now discussed much of the theoretical aspects of resistance training. In the next two lessons we will do the same for aerobic training.

Click here to proceed to Lesson 7


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